Between leaving and arriving is the desert. God invites each one of us to do something better and to be someone better. God knows we are not ready and so He takes us through a desert of discipline to get us ready. In the desert, we ask hard questions. In the desert, we learn new things about God: our consciousness of God is enlarged. We get revelation knowledge. Things we believed in and read in The Book, but never experienced happen for us and to us in the desert. Something is built up inside us that was not there before. Forced out of our former comfortableness, we learned to receive comfort from God.
Death and tranquility exist side by side in the desert. Things die and we find simplicity. We learn about worshiping God in a tabernacle. We learn to feed ourselves on bread from heaven. Our lives are striped down to trusting God for everything.
The desert is designed to strengthen our spirit so that when we come out of the desert, we live more from our spirits.
Those who get it about the benefits of the desert cheer when their desert time comes. To them, it means more time alone with God or time trusting God to build up their inner spirits. Those who have grown from the desert experiences, carry it with them and have learned to retreat into a mini desert to come before God when their lives are busy and demanding. Jesus did this when he left camp to go up in the hills to seek the Father, when it was still dark, and the disciples were sleeping.
In the book of Hosea there is a beautiful word from God to Israel that may apply to his people today:
Therefore, I will charm her,
and bring her into the desert,
and speak tenderly to her heart.
From there I will give her vineyards,
and make the Achor Valley
a door of hope.
There she will respond to me
as in the days of her youth,
like the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
-Hosea 2:14-15 (CEB)
Jonah didn't get it when God changed his mind. Maybe he liked preaching the message of destruction? Maybe he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed. And he was furious when the Nineties repented and God decided to not destroy them.
Have you ever watched something and assumed an outcome, based on your own calculations? We might believe that someone or something is beyond remedy, beyond hope. We might believe someone or something or some situation is too far gone.
God does not think the way we do. Someone may speak for God, but not know God. Someone might know God's acts, but not know God's ways. While God is the judge and judges purely and is completely wise, God also abounds in mercy and has the ability to extend forgiveness beyond beyond the abilities of the human heart.
We are taught simple forgiveness by God as a way of life, but we also have to practice hard forgiveness; forgiving inconceivably: forgiving the unforgivable. The only way to forgive the unforgivable is do it through God.
"But Jonah...", and, "But Steve..."; are footnotes. "But God", is the main course. But God, in the fullness of time sent his Son, his only Son; to die on the cross for all of humanity's sins. That is the "but" that really matters. We made a mess from day one and in Jesus, God came to clean it all up. God paid the debt of all sin at the cross. The only way that we can forgive the unforgivable is to connect with the cross, with the person who died on that cross, who paid for what is humanly unforgivable to be forgiven. Like Jonah, we are not God and can not conceive of God's mercy, but just agree with it when God extends it and we have to work out when that is.
What about when we're angry at God? Can God handle it? Yes, but how we handle it is what we have to watch out for. Pastor James says, "an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness"(James 1:20). Apostle Paul says, "be angry without sinning" (Ephesians 4:26). The first story with anger in it in the Bible, and it was anger that got out of control and caused destruction, is in Genesis, chapter 4:
The LORD was pleased with Abel and his offering, but not with Cain and his offering. This made Cain so angry that he could not hide his feelings.
The LORD said to Cain:
What's wrong with you? Why do you have such an angry look on your face? If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling. But you did the wrong thing, and now sin is waiting to attack you like a lion. Sin wants to destroy you, but don't let it! Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go for a walk." And when they were out in a field, Cain killed him.
The Lord warned Cain that his anger could turn to sin and it did. It didn't have to and neither did Jonah's. It seems that the antidote to anger's destruction for the believer is to lean into and onto God. What if you've got your anger in one hand. Take the other hand and reach out to God, like a lightning rod. Anger is a given in a fallen world. We feel wronged and our anger flashes. Do we lash out and run towards violent pay-back, verbally, physically, or in our thoughts; or do we cool off by reaching out to God?
Can we extend or give forgiveness to those who have triggered anger in us? Can we forgive God if he throws us a curve ball, doing something that we did not expect, perhaps something good for someone we still think of as bad? If we're Christians, are we taking up our crosses (instruments of death) and following the One who died and rose from the dead; or have we got it wrong and think we are God as we vent and judge and preside over the ungodly?
Jonah was a capitol P Prophet. He was the real deal, yet we keep seeing a flawed man who has issues. He is not Jesus and and he is far from perfect. Yet, God chose him and God would not let him retire early. God has a plan and a message he wants to do and to give through Jonah. Along the way, Jonah gets to learn more about God and his mercy.
Messengers need the message too. Preachers, teachers, and prophets need to be learners and people being transformed in the same way as the people they preach, teach, and prophesy to. I might give you something from God that I've gotten. I might also give you something from God that I am getting, but haven't got yet. I also might give you something from God that I'm not getting and have not got.
Jonah said one thing and it was the thing God told him to say and it was true. He thought he got the fact that it was over for the Ninevites and he gave them that message. It was true, but there was more. There was the back story part that God is merciful. He knew that, but didn't like it as far as the Ninevites were concerned. That's where the anger comes in and Jonah reaching back to God is his only hope. The Ninevites have come home to God and have a whole new life in God that they are passing through the doorway of. In stark contrast, Jonah is in a vexed and perplexed, angry place that he needs help to get out of. If that is ever you or me, we have hope from God.
The Ninevites made real changes and then God made a change. He changed his mind. God stopped the plans to destroy Nineveh. There was nothing in God's word that Jonah declared that was conditional. God did not say, "if you repent, I will relent." I read the word as saying, "it's over, but I'm giving you forty days."
The king on Nineveh imagined out loud when he said, "who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish." Having not been schooled in how prophecy works and in the face of ruin, this king of a people who have a track record of evil is suddenly optimistic; while at the same time, being gravely certain of the truth of Jonah's word and leading his people in sincere repentance.
But why 40 days? Even the 40 day warning was merciful. The question would be, "what would you do if you found out you only had forty days to live?" The Ninevites, in whole, decided to spend the 40 days repenting, calling out to God, and stopping their evil behavior.
This story illustrates the fact that all prophetic words are not binding. A negative word that says, bad things are going to happen to you, even death, is perhaps God saying, "if you continue on the road you are on, you are going to get where you are going." If that person responds to that word by getting off the road they are on or turning back onto God's road, and they do not die, but live in God; that does not make God a liar or the prophetic person false. They were actually very accurate from Heaven's perspective. The word's purpose was to wake up the sleeper. Rude awakening precedes great awakening.
The opposite kind of prophecy is the positive one. The prophetic word foretells blessings in the person's life that are not presently evident. After receiving the positive word, the person's circumstances may get worse, perhaps for a long time. Was it a false prophecy? No. The word was meant to encourage the person about their future and give them hope. Is the positive word conditional? Sometimes it is. The person may have to walk with God, holding onto their word, through a desert; where they learn to trust God's word above all else, before their word of promise is fulfilled.
God's word to the Ninevites was true and said what was going to happen. But then, God changed his mind. God changed his mind because of the new evidence set before him. But being God, wouldn't God have known what the Ninevites were going to do and that he would not be destroying them? Either he was playing a game where the ends justified the means, or he really is not as smart (all knowing) as we thought, but is like a super computer or a super man.
No, no, no. None of these are correct. God is almighty. But what if God in his infinite wisdom, chooses not to know certain things? God is in control, but not controlling. What if God hopes for an outcome, but he does not know until we make our choice? It really is not a rigged game. What if God is like a parent that disciplines his child. Like the parent, God hopes the discipline will lead to obedience and reconciliation. God is a person. We were created in God's image.
What if God, since he is God, can know everything, but chooses to not know some things?
An intriguing example of this is in Genesis 22, when God sends Abraham up the mountain to sacrifice his precious son, Issac. The story opens by telling the reader that God tested Abraham. OK, it's a test, a really intense, hard test; that Abraham passed. Why did God do that to his friend? Abraham passes the test. He was about to kill his son and then God, through the Angel of the Lord, said, "Don't stretch out your hand against the young man and don't do anything to him, I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”
Notice the Angel of the Lord, speaking for God says, "I now know". In other words, he did not know before the test and needed to find out, so he tested Abraham. God didn't know. God didn't choose to know, for some reason in God's infinite wisdom. It doesn't say, "I knew (I'm God), but I wanted to see what I already knew". But it says, "now I know", implying that God did not know.
Back to Nineveh. God knew what could happen, for sure. But God may have been choosing to not know what would happen, but was truthfully declaring, through Jonah, that destruction was in forty days. As God, God had decided it was curtains time for Nineveh. Enough was enough.
But when Nineveh changed, God changed. God who is a rock and changes not changed. God's character did not change, but God's mind changed. God changed his plans after seeing what the people of Nineveh had changed about their behavior. God, who is the almighty and the righteous judge also is merciful.
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:5-9
They simply believed God. Polytheists and idolaters suddenly became monotheists, listening to the one true God. When the real God speaks, it is different; and he spoke through Jonah. Jesus said, "they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah's preaching" (Matt. 12:41) Repentance. Jonah simply preached the word given to him and the people responded. The word God said to speak, cut to the heart of the Ninevites and they heard it!
Repentance is not just saying I think I will change, or that's a good idea and I agree; but actual change. There are physical signs of repentance. For the Ninevites, it was fasting and putting on sackcloth. They didn't just say "sorry", but did sorry. You say you are sorry, now show me. They did.
The king of Nineveh repented too. Jonah's message eventually got to him, and he responded as his people were responding and used his authority to encourage the nation wide repentance. The king added some more dimensions to the repentance, saying to call out to God and forsake their evil ways. He put more "shoe leather" onto his repentance, walking it out.
Jonah did not go to the king first because that was not his assignment. His assignment was to walk into Nineveh and proclaim the message God gave him, which he did.
What does it mean, that we hear God's word today that calls us to change, to repent; and we do not. We read our Bibles or listen to a message or read book, that is a written message from God; and we do not change. The actual message calls for change, but we detach from it and watch the message, like watching an entertainment, and keep ourselves above and beyond it's touch. We fold our arms to the message, over our hearts, and close our eyes and cover our ears. What happens to the person who does this over and over, while self-identifying themselves as "christian"? Remember where Jesus said he will say to them, "I never knew you"? But we cast out demons in your name! I never knew you. But I went to church, I learned about you, about God.... I was a good person..... I did things for you... I memorized scripture... I tithed... I spoke in tongues... I healed the sick.... I wrote books about you.... I NEVER KNEW YOU (Matthew 7:21-23)
What if the people that Jesus says he does not know are people who refuse to repent? Religious people who have taken on Christianity and "believed", but never belonged to God. Jesus contrasted the Ninevites who repented at Jonah's message to the people of his day who professed to be God's people, but approached Jesus (and John the baptist) with skepticism. Jesus comes and forces a decision onto each person. He says, "follow me", "I am the way", "I am the bread from heaven". He does not say, "vote for me", "read my book", "listen to me on my pod cast", "become my fan", or "join my club". When he says words like, "follow me", to all of us in one way or another, we have to respond and repentance is part of it. We make changes, U-turns in our lives, we leave things behind and follow him.
Do you remember what Jesus message was? It was, "Change your hearts and lives (repent), for the kingdom of God has come" (Matt. 3:2). Jesus called for repentance then and he does now. Jonah had a message from God and the Ninevites repented. In Jesus days on earth, some responded and repented while others did not. Today it is the same. Even if the church has lost Jesus original message, watering it down and adding hamburger helper; his message still stands. Are we turning from sin and walking with him? Are we faithful to him or are we just fans?
In his assignment to go to Nineveh, given a second time, God had told Jonah that he was to, "declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” As promised, God gave Jonah the proclamation he was to proclaim, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” This is what he preached on the streets of Nineveh. God had given Jonah a word to deliver to a group of people and he delivered it.
Jonah, "just did it". He didn't write it, he didn't look for key people, he didn't whisper, and he didn't try to be contextual in assimilating to the culture and finding a way to sugar coat this hard word. No, he just did and said what God told him to do and say. Was Jonah smiling or frowning, stern or genteel? We don't know.
Prophetic preaching is when God gives you a word concerning the future of a people and you proclaim it to them. The preacher, proclaimer, or messenger has to be careful not to add his or her words to God's word. This is just as important in prophetic ministry to individuals, couples, families, or small groups. The prophetic minister may often need to say, "I don't know what it means". Your interpretation of the word, if it needs interpreting, is not part of the word from God; and that needs to be made very clear to avoid confusion. So, a true word from God can be misinterpreted.
Prophetic ministers, proclaimers, messengers, or writers can pray to God for the interpretation. God may answer and give the interpretation or he may not and the person who received the word may have to submit his prophesy to the community of other prophets. In fact, we are admonished to weigh each others prophecies in the New Testament. In Christianity we have common prophecy in community where other prophetic people help to administer prophetic words. See 1 Corinthians chapters 12-16.
What about the good news? How does Jonah apply to His-story, or salvation history? Jonah's message was a wake up call. A wake up call is sent by a loving God. God cared enough to send a message to a sinful people, telling them that time was up for them, in forty days.
If God cared enough to send this message through a person, then perhaps the message is true? The sinful people are given a chance to repent before they are destroyed. Destruction is not good news, but the warning is merciful.
God has suddenly, "brought the bottom up", for Nineveh. Their sin has finally brought severe consequences. God perhaps engineers or allows circumstances for people that are rude awakenings. We need to help people turn to God for salvation and not save them ourselves. The message from God is designed for the recipient from God and the messenger should be clear that they do not write the message, but only deliver it.